Category: Online Learning

May 24th, 2017 by Jon Becker

As I transition back to being “just” a tenured faculty member, I spend much of my time thinking about how I want to spend my time come Fall. While this transition is not of my own choosing, I have come to see it as an opportunity to get back to my roots and values as a scholar and an educator. I now know what courses I’ll be teaching in the Fall, and I look forward to getting back to teaching graduate-level courses which I haven’t done in over 4 years. The last four years as a university administrator and leader of faculty development and online learning initiatives have given me some new perspectives on teaching and learning and equipped me with some new tools and ideas to incorporate into my teaching.

I have also come to see this transition as an opportunity to reinvent myself as a scholar. My tenure portfolio was built around scholarship focused on, broadly, educational technology at the K-12 level. I was one of a small group of scholars housed in a department of educational leadership who studied and wrote about educational technology. My scholarly work lived at the intersection of technology, leadership, and policy all with a focus on equity. Staying that course would be the easy road, and the group of like-minded, like-focused educational leadership professors hasn’t gotten any larger; there’s enormous need for more research around leadership and policy around educational technology within the K-12 system.

However, having spent the past 4 years in a leadership position largely focused on distance education, I find myself really wanting to focus my scholarly pursuits on distance education in higher education. As a scholar, I have long struggled with the expectation of having a sufficiently narrow research agenda. That works against my natural intellectual curiosity. That said, I also understand the need to be efficient with the limited time we have for research, and I value expertise which is a natural result of sustained, focused scholarly activity around a bounded area within a discipline. In fact, I think I understand this better now than I did even 5 years ago as a faculty member.

This is also a good time for me to focus on distance education in higher education because my department, Educational Leadership, is expanding our offerings and adding programs in higher education administration. Most immediately, we are adding a higher education-focused cohort to our Ed.D. program, and there are plans to develop a masters program in higher education administration. We are in the final stages of hiring two faculty members focused on higher education.

“Distance education in higher education” is still a broad area and I’ll need to really find my pigeonhole. As a starting point, I have applied for research leave for the Spring ’18 semester and internal funding to engage in a research project that I can’t say much about right now. I am still waiting to find out if my leave application is approved and/or if I won the competition for internal research funds. Those decisions will largely shape how I go about my scholarly pursuits over the next 12-18 months.

Furthermore, I want to get back to my roots in the politics of education and as an educational policy analyst. From my perspective, the vast majority of the research on distance education in higher education is focused on issues around teaching and learning. This is critically important, of course. Additionally, there’s a lot of research trying to get at “effectiveness” of distance education. I understand why that’s being done, but it’s not of particular interest to me right now. Where I think there’s a real gap is in good critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education. According to Diem et al. (2014):

Critical theories facilitate the exploration of policy roots and processes; how policies presented as reality are often political rhetoric; how knowledge, power, and resources are distributed inequitably; how educational programs and policies, regardless of intent, reproduce stratified social relations; how schools institutionalize those with whom they come into contact; and how individuals react (e.g. resistance or acquiescence) to such social and institutional forces.

What might critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education look like? In an article today in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Haynes writes,

“Online education aspires to more than the predatory neo-liberal nightmare its harshest critics make it out to be. While there are many questions yet to be answered, online education is promising, effective, and vital to the health of contemporary college and universities.”

That strikes me as an ideal prompt for critical policy analysis. If Haynes is correct, how to explain the following language from other recent Inside Higher Ed articles? In an article about class sizes in online courses, we get the following statement:

“These are business decisions,” said Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, meaning that if an online class doesn’t have enough students to earn the institution money, it won’t be offered. After that hurdle is cleared, colleges have to consider whether the academic needs of the student are met, Head said. 

Then, in an article about a nationwide survey about the online education market, we see this:

“One of our basic premises is that online education is a business, and it is establishing itself at the majority of two- and four-year institutions,” Legon said. “As it joins the mainstream, one would want to ask how this fits into the organizational structure of these institutions, the budgeting, agenda, priorities for investments and development, and how it affects the role that faculty and staff play — just a variety of issues that come together to make online learning a viable, long-term aspect of higher education.”

How do we reconcile Haynes’ claim about neoliberalism and the language of the stakeholders above? And that is language just from the last couple of days just from one publication. We need some good critical policy analysis here.

I am fortunate in that Dr. Katherine Mansfield is a departmental colleague at VCU. She has done a bunch of really great work around critical policy analysis in education and I have an opportunity to learn and hopefully work with her. I look to Kat, my other colleagues, and you all, both of my readers, to help me as I begin nesting in my pigeonhole.


Posted in Online Learning, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

May 11th, 2017 by Jon Becker

Lindsey Downs, Manager of Communications for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology (WCET), published a blog post today about definitions and distance education. It’s a really good post and you might choose to read that and come back here for more…

I am thankful that Lindsey included me in her round of interviews. She only included parts of my replies to her good questions, so I thought I’d post a slightly modified version of the longer response I sent to her.

If you didn’t click over to Lindsey’s article, here are the questions she posed:

  1. What is your opinion of distance education definitions from IPEDS, accrediting agencies, states, and institutions?
  2. What works and does not work for you regarding those definitions?
  3. How would you improve the definition?

Here is a slightly modified version of how I replied:


When I applied to be the Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, the cover letter started with the following paragraph:

In my more skeptical moments, I find myself wondering things like: If formal schooling had existed in the United States when Gutenberg invented the printing press, would there have been lots of discussion and hand-wringing about the inevitable move towards print-based learning? Would formal learning organizations have created new units and positions around print-based learning? From there, I begin wondering if, some day, we will look back upon the present time and laugh at the idea that we used terms like “online learning” and/or “hybrid courses.”

Today, though, we wring our hands and bend over backwards trying to come up with definitions of various course modalities. From my perspective, we mostly do this for reporting purposes. I understand the need for various stakeholders to create these sorts of definitions, but I believe we are mostly herding cats. Furthermore, different stakeholders have different goals/needs, thus creating the havoc that we have now.

One group of stakeholders typically not consulted in these definitional efforts is students. No surprise. I’m in full agreement with Marshall Hill who, according to Lindsey’s post says “our focus here should be on how to best serve students. Colleges and universities should not decide how to deliver education based on what they need to report, but rather what will best meet their student’s needs. And then we (meaning accreditors, government agencies, policy geeks, etc.) should figure out how to count that. Not the other way around.”

So, when looking into online programs or considering registering for online courses, what DO students need to know? Well, as best I can surmise, they mostly need to know: Do I need to be in any particular place at any particular time? So, place and time.

From a place perspective, I’d say there are basically two key possibilities: fully or even partially face-to-face (I will have to be in a particular geophysical location at some point during the life of the course) and fully online (I never have to be in one particular place). From a time perspective, I’d say there are also really only two relevant possibilities: fully or even partially synchronous (I will have to commit to doing some part of the course at a specific/particular time at some point during the life of the course) and fully asynchronous (I can do everything I need to do on my own time). From there, we can create a 2×2 grid:


Ever synchronous Fully asynchronous
Ever face-to-face A B
Fully online C D


Most higher ed. courses are Type A (insert neuroticism joke here) – you go to your assigned classroom at assigned times. Additionally, I believe that when most stakeholders talk about “online learning,” they are assuming Type D (or maybe even C). Type D fits the narrative of “flexibility” and taking courses in bed in your pajamas (a narrative that needs to be incinerated in a massive fire).

If a course is designated as A or B, I am geographically constrained in my choices. If it’s C or D, I can be in Timbuktu for all I care. If the course is A or C, I have to be sure that my schedule/calendar/lifestyle allows me to commit to a learning experience at a specific time, even if it’s just a one time event. For example, let’s say a course is a C because there are a couple of instances when, on a given day at a specific time, a guest speaker will be appearing via a videoconferencing platform. Furthermore, the instructor expects the students to participate live though from a distance. Does my schedule allow me to be present for those virtual guest speakers?

If we could start with those four designations, I think we would help students a lot. But, from there, I think it behooves institutions to be crystal clear upfront and early enough in the registration process about what a given course looks and feels like. If it’s an A or C, how often will the synchronous events occur? If it’s an A or B, how often will I need to be in a particular geophysical location? That information should be available via the course registration system and in any other information systems potential and current students might access.

I think these designations could work for programs, too. Over the life of a degree program, will I ever need to be in a particular geophysical location and/or will I ever need to commit to working at a specific time?

I’m sure some key stakeholder could pick apart my classification scheme, but I feel like the more we try to capture the nuances of courses and programs with definitions, the crazier we’ll all get.

So, in the name of distance education love…

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , , ,

March 13th, 2017 by Jon Becker

About 6 weeks ago, I wrote about efforts underway to advance online/distance education across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since then, I’ve talked to some folks involved, attended a hearing in the General Assembly, and received updates from folks “in the loop.” The tl;dr version of what has happened since that last post is that we now have a state-supported initiative aimed, at least for now, at degree completion via distance education. The Online Virginia Network (OVN) is now a thing, and, for now, is mostly a collaboration between Old Dominion University and George Mason University to advance a degree completion agenda by streamlining the process for enrolling in an online program at one of the two institutions. Their new website, which I think is pretty slick and simple to navigate, is mostly just a portal to information about programs offered at the two universities. The OVN1 also has new oversight in the form of a board that’s loaded with state legislators. How the OVN grows in the future feels undetermined to me, but maybe that’s OK. We’ll see…

[UPDATE: I was properly informed that the OVN isn’t really officially a new thing, yet. House Bill 2262 breezed through the House of Delegates and the Senate, but has not yet been signed by Governor McAuliffe. So, what exists now (particularly the website) lives, at least budgetarily, under the auspices of the original Virginia Degree Completion Network. My guess is that the Governor signs the bill, though maybe with some small amendments.]

At the hearing at the General Assembly about the OVN that I attended, the only speakers were representatives from ODU and GMU. The legislative committee asked them a few questions, and throughout the short hearing, there were some numbers thrown around about “the market” for the OVN. One person said that there are 1.1 million Virginia residents with some college credits and no degree; another person said the number is more like 600,000. SCHEV’s Tod Massa, wrote about this last summer and estimates 648,000 such residents, and even breaks it down by how many credits they actually have. However we slice it, there are LOTS of Virginia residents with some college credits but no degree.

Related, as part of my “reassignment” this semester, I’ve been doing some research about the distance education landscape in Virginia. I’ve been asked to gather data and produce some information about VCU’s standing relative to other institutions. My starting point has been IPEDS data which yielded the following charts.

There’s some interesting information in those charts2, most of which I already knew. For example, at the undergraduate level, the Virginia Community College System is the dominant player. And, particularly among the 4-year publics, ODU is the big kahuna. Looking at the data also reminded me that Virginia, as a whole, is not considered a big distance education state. In fact, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Virginia’s percentage of instruction by e-learning is ranked 15th out of 16 SREB states.

So, if by the logic of the OVN, there is such a big “market” of people with some college credit but no college degree, why such a small percentage of instruction offered through distance education? And, if that’s the case, maybe Virginia is ripe for the plucking by outside providers?

For that last question, we now have some data. As part of the national State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), participating institutions have to report the number of distance education students served from outside their home state. And, the fine folks at NC-SARA have made those data publicly available.  Somewhat to my surprise, those data show almost 35,000 Virginia residents involved in distance education at out-of-state institutions. We don’t know the extent to which they’re enrolled (single courses? A whole program?) or at what level (undergraduate? graduate?), but we can see which out-of-state institutions are enrolling the most Virginia residents. The table below only lists the top 7 states in which institutions serving Virginia residents are domiciled, and the top 3 institutions within those states.

WV 8899 American Public University System (8588) (for-profit)
West Virginia University (108)
University of Charleston (71)
AZ 8788 University of Phoenix (5718) (for-profit)
Penn Foster College (1480) (for-profit)
Grand Canyon University (1127) (for-profit)
MN 3944 Walden University (2282) (for-profit)
Capella University (1519) (for-profit)
Rasmussen College (58) (for-profit)
CO 1985 Colorado Technical University (695) (for-profit)
College for Financial Planning (295) (for-profit)
American Sentinel University – Aurora (257) (for-profit)
NH 1625 Southern New Hampshire University (1625) (for-profit)
IA 1575 Kaplan University (1575) (for-profit)
AL 1508 Columbia Southern University (1073) (for-profit)
Troy University (197)
The University of Alabama (80)

Notice anything? It’s almost all for-profit institutions domiciled outside of Virginia, to the tune of probably close to 30,000 of the 35,ooo Virginia residents involved in distance education. For sure, many of these students are military personnel, as we have some big military bases and I’ve seen firsthand how aggressively the for-profit providers recruit military personnel to their programs. But, is this a big “market”; is this a lot of potential in-state tuition money lost to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers?

Well, I looked at SARA states closest in size to Virginia. First, I looked at Washington, a state slightly less populous than Virginia. According to the NC-SARA data, just over 20,000 students are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit lower than Virginia. I also looked at Georgia, a slightly more populous state than Virginia. Almost 58,000 Georgia residents are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit more than Virginia. These are back-of-the-napkin calculations, but I’m guessing that, ultimately, Virginia is about typical in this realm. Tens of thousands of our residents are enrolling in distance education at out-of-state, mostly for-profit institutions.

Are we making up for that lost tuition by enrolling out-of-state students in our online courses and programs? Well, according to the NC-SARA data, the answer is not really. There are 58,917 out-of-state students being served by Virginia institutions. However, the vast majority of those are students attending Liberty and/or other private institutions. In fact, by my calculations, 1,187 out-of-state students are enrolled in some form of distance education through a public institution in Virginia.

What does this all mean? Very roughly, for every 1 student who pays out-of-state tuition via distance education to a public institution in Virginia, we lose 35 students to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers.

This doesn’t include Virginia residents enrolled at institutions in non-SARA states at the time SARA conducted this first round of data collection. North Carolina, our neighbor to the south, wasn’t in SARA at the time and I’m certain some of our residents are enrolled through UNC Online. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the number of Virginia residents getting a degree from Liberty University via distance education. I can’t immediately find how many in-state students they have, but their own website says their online enrollment exceeds 94,0003. I have to figure that includes tens of thousands of Virginia residents. Ultimately, though, the 1:35 ratio above is probably a conservative estimate.

So, back to the Online Virginia Network… if my rough calculations are correct, as a state, we’d do well to figure out ways to serve our residents better. We’re not going to keep every student in state or enrolled at one of our public institutions, but I’m certain we can recoup some of the tuition lost to out-of-state and/or private providers. And, this is where I think and hope the Online Virginia Network (OVN) can come into play.

This all, of course, doesn’t get into issues of quality. I can’t speak to the quality of online courses and programs at Liberty. I have heard some unconfirmed rumors about their criteria for hiring instructors and they worry me.  And, frankly, as much as I have my suspicions, I don’t *really* know about the quality of online courses and programs offered by the for-profit providers. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, LowerEd, is a brilliant, insightful look at the practices within the for-profit education industry. Tressie’s book is more about practice and policy (and sociology) than it is about educational quality, but she does report on the less-than-stellar outcomes for students served by these providers. These outcomes include high dropout rates and poor job-placement rates while students have taken on massive amounts of debt. That’s not what we want for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  So, I also hope that the Online Virginia Network is truly attentive to issues of quality. I’ve written about the rules of engagement for online learning and the thicket of guidelines and regulations that bound the world of distance education. Despite those guidelines and regulations, we know that crappy online courses and programs abound. Thus, my dearest hope is that the Online Virginia Network (OVN) is truly attentive to issues of educational quality and not just a mechanism for funneling citizens into programs of limited quality and poor outcomes.

  1. sounds a bit like an evangelical TV network to me []
  2. NOTE: I did not include Liberty University in any of the charts. They’re too much of an outlier. []
  3. Yes, 94,000. That’s not a typo… []

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , ,

January 19th, 2017 by Jon Becker

There is a significant amount of legislative and policy activity here in Virginia to try to centralize, to varying degrees, post-secondary online learning. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, so let me offer some history and context as I know it1.

In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 1400 (Chapter 665), added/included the following language to Title 23, Chapter 9.1, of the Code of Virginia:

G. In consultation with other institutions, George Mason University shall develop a plan for a comprehensive on-line course offering in Virginia. As part of the plan, George Mason University shall (1) research similar programs in other states; (2) evaluate the need for adult completion programs; (3) identify the academic programs to be included; (4) develop an appropriate scheduling model; and (5) recommend an appropriate pricing model. George Mason University shall submit the plan to the Governor and the Chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees by September 1, 2015.

Sure enough, in September 2015, in partnership with Old Dominion University, a report was issued and the concept of the Virginia Degree Completion Network was birthed. It’s not a terribly comprehensive or detailed report, but it included a purpose for the Network:

requirements for implementation

and a timeline.

My contacts and “insider” sources say the Network plan didn’t exactly take off and there was much foot dragging. Furthermore, by my account, at this point, there’s no way that timeline could be achieved.


Well, the month after the report about the Network was issued, and while feet were dragging around the Virginia Degree Completion Network, Virginia Statute §23.1-909, was enacted (thus codifying House Bill 2320) and it stated that:

The Secretary of Education and the director of the Council [SCHEV], in consultation with each public institution of higher education and nonprofit private institution of higher education, shall develop a plan to establish and advertise a cooperative degree program whereby any undergraduate student enrolled at any public institution of higher education or nonprofit private institution of higher education may complete, through the use of online courses at any such institution, the course credit requirements to receive a degree at a tuition cost not to exceed $4,000, or the lowest cost that is achievable, per academic year.

This “$4,000 per year cooperative online degree” idea got considerable attention around the state, and those of us involved in online learning in higher education across the Commonwealth were eager to see the report that was due on October 1, 2016. I don’t know how much consultation there was with institutions of higher education, but I do know that some of us were offered an opportunity to comment via a listserv maintained for the Networked Learning Collaborative of Virginia (NLCVA). Well, sure enough, dutifully, Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia Dietra Trent and SCHEV Director Peter Blake submitted the legislatively required progress report on October 1, 2016. The comments from NLCVA members are included in that report as Appendix D. I can neither confirm nor deny that I am the first commenter.

The tl;dr version of the good report authored by Trent and Blake is “This cooperative degree idea is a good idea, but it’s complicated. Also, there is already this idea for the Virginia Degree Completion Network, so let’s combine those efforts into something called the Online Virginia Network (OVN). And, let’s be planful about this…oh, and $4,000 per year is not realistic…But, again, good idea!” Well, that’s my interpretation; you’re free to read the report and offer your own interpretation.

I do like that the report relies heavily on State U. Online, a report done by Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation. That report has been influential in my thinking around these matters and I referenced it in my comments through NLCVA to SCHEV. I don’t know if I introduced SCHEV to the report via my comments, but I like to imagine I did 🙂


So, that’s where we were as of October 1, 2016. Fast forward to last week, January 11, 2017, and here comes House Bill 2262 which would establish The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). Essentially and effectively, the bill would enact the recommendations of the report from Trent and Blake.

§ 23.1-3134. Online Virginia Network Authority established; purpose; governing board; staff support.

The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials by improving the quality of and expanding access to online degree and credential programs that are beneficial to citizens, institutions of higher education, and employers in the Commonwealth.


§ 23.1-3135. Scope; duties; funding.

A. Each public institution of higher education and each consortium of public institutions of higher education that offers online courses, online degree programs, or online credential programs shall offer any such course, degree program, or credential program through the Authority.

B. The Authority shall:

1. Act as the coordinating and administering entity for the delivery of each online course, degree program, and credential program identified in subsection A;

So, that’s kind of a big deal. There are additional parameters in the Bill, but you can read through those yourself. I have lots of random thoughts about these developments, so, in no particular order, here they are:

  1. I’ve long said that I’m an advocate for recognizing that online learning is a different animal and where issues of time and space are essentially out of play, we ought to be able to work better together and across institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Within limits, there are real efficiencies that we can realize by collaborating on online programs. So, I suppose, ultimately, I’m not opposed to the overall concept of the Online Virginia Network Authority.
  2. That said, it’s important to echo part of what Trent and Blake write in their report: “Delivery of online instruction is expensive to undertake and to continue… Dr. Trent and Mr. Blake have concerns about the statute’s expectation regarding tuition at public institutions of higher education. On the practical side, they are concerned that a cut-rate tuition will imply that the online education being provided is low quality, or that the on-campus education being provided at a higher cost is vastly overpriced, or worse yet, that both implications are true. They believe that a college education – regardless of its delivery method – is a college education. An online degree program must be – in fact and in perception – just as rigorous and high quality as an on-campus program; otherwise, it should not be offered.” Amen.
  3. As with any policy idea, the devil is in the implementation details. Per my comment in Appendix D of the Trent/Blake report, higher education in Virginia is very decentralized. There is no “system” of higher education, and purposefully so. There are pros and cons to that. But, one downside is that in trying to develop and implement something like the Online Virginia Network Authority comes with significant hurdles due to the lack of any centralized infrastructure. The Bill goes to great lengths to spell out how the Authority should be governed by a board and who should comprise the board. But, the authority will need much more than a board. It will need leadership and personnel. The Bill states that “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority. All agencies of the Commonwealth shall provide assistance to the Authority, upon request” but there’s no way this Authority could be run just by a board with some SCHEV staffing and assistance. And, if by “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority…” means that SCHEV needs to fund new positions to run the Authority under the guidance of the board, I don’t know where SCHEV will get funding for such positions.
  4. I note that the Bill states that “The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials…” That very specifically mentions competency-based degrees and credentials. So, is the Authority limited to ONLY the realm of competency-based degrees and credentials? If so, that changes everything…
  5. I’m not that tuned into the Virginia legislature, so I asked around to others who are more tapped in about how likely this Bill is to pass. From what I’ve been able to gather, there is serious influence behind the Bill in general and the concept in particular. Kirk Cox, a co-patron of the bill, is the majority leader of the House of Delegates in Virginia. He has been in that position for over 6 years. I’m told he’s well-respected and influential. Thus, this Bill will be given serious consideration. I mostly feel like the Bill may not pass as is, but that this is an opening salvo and negotiations and testimonies will ultimately lead to some form of centralized control of online learning in Virginia. In the K-12 world, Virtual Virginia has been around for a while now and has been a valuable resource to students and school divisions across the Commonwealth. Also, Governor McAuliffe is a proponent of online learning even if he did veto a bill to create a statewide K-12 school overseen by a newly created state board.  So, there is some precedent in the K-12 sector and real support from key legislators and stakeholders. I’m not counting this Bill out.
  6. Ultimately, I hope institutions of higher education can come together to work with each other on this and not just resist out of fear of losing potential revenue. We are a COMMONWEALTH, and if we can do right by our citizens and provide high-quality and cost-effective postsecondary options via some form of centralized or collaborative efforts, we should.
  7. I note that the board would include “… three nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor.” Hey, Governor McAuliffe, give me a call? I’m available…

So, I don’t know that we’ll get Virginia Online U (per the title of the post which is a nod to the aforementioned New America Foundation report I like so much), but we may very well get The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, weeks and months and I hope I can share those as I can.

  1. which probably contains some inaccuracies or misstatements as I’m not completely plugged in to the legislative scene. Apologies if I misstate anything and I’m happy to clarify and update should anyone point out any problems with what I’ve written. []

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , ,

April 17th, 2016 by Jon Becker

As a lawyer dude who lives in the world of online learning, the news about a complaint filed by a class of students at George Washington University has me intrigued. According to Inside Higher Education,

Four graduates of the university’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership last week filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court, saying the program doesn’t live up to its promise of being designed for an online setting and not a physical classroom.

I haven’t read the complaint, but the IHE story says that the students are “…suing the university for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violation of D.C. consumer protection laws.” In other words, the students claim that the university is making money off of them by providing an educational experience that’s not at all what was promised to them. This framing is important; you can’t just file a lawsuit claiming that the program sucked. You need an actual cause of action, and these students are going the consumer fraud route. They could have tacked on a claim of educational malpractice, but those lawsuits are almost never successful.

More specifically, according to the GW Hatchet, and independent student newspaper at GWU, the students appear to claim that, among other things:

  • Course materials included “often nonsensical PowerPoint slides pilfered from other instructors’ in-class lessons.”
  • Instructors were unqualified to teach online.
  • Instructors were “…consistently unresponsive and demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the subject matter and material.”
  • Misrepresentation of the program in advertisements to prospective students, including a claim that the program is “universally lauded by alumni” despite the fact that there were no alumni when the online program launched.

That’s some heavy stuff. Of course, it’s just the language from the complaint which is the initial salvo from the lawyers carrying out their ethical obligation of zealous advocacy. We’ll see how the university responds.

Yet, this development got me wondering if we’ll see more of these kinds of lawsuits. For lots of reasons, many colleges and universities are ramping up their online offerings. In the minds of some stakeholders, this is a fairly simple proposition. Fire up a learning management system, build some courses in there consisting of mostly content and quizzes, assign faculty members as instructors of record, and, voila, an online program. If only…

While the complaint against GWU is framed as, essentially, a consumer fraud case, there are a host of regulatory standards to which online programs are held. From the federal government to national reciprocity agreements to regional accreditation agencies, universities that wish to offer online programming are held to a complex web of standards. Consider just the following:

Federal Regulations

By federal law “correspondence” and “distance education” are defined in section § 600.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.  These definitions have been in place since July 1, 2010.

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include—

(1) The internet;

(2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;

(3) Audio conferencing; or

(4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3) of this definition.

The key language in that definition is “…regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor…” If one or more of those technologies is used and there is no regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, courses and/or programs could be classified as “correspondence courses.” From there, “According to Section 102(a)(3)(B) of the HEA, an institution is not eligible to participate in the Title IV programs if 50 percent or more of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses during its latest complete award year.” So, if an institution of higher education wants to engage heavily in online learning, it behooves the institution to make sure it is truly providing “distance education” and not “correspondence courses” or else they risk losing federal financial aid. The distinction, there, is “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” I wonder if the GWU students believe the interaction between them and the instructors was “regular and substantive;” doesn’t sound like it.

State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA)

Institutions that want to offer online courses and/or programs to out-of-state students must make sure they are compliant with consumer protection laws in the states where those out-of-state students are domiciled. To avoid having to deal with 50 different laws, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements was formed. As of the writing of this post, 34 states were participating in SARA. In those states, over 500 institutions of higher education are now participating in SARA.

Among other things, institutions that participate in SARA are expected to abide by the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) in 2011. The C-RAC guidelines are a set of 9 principles, each of which has  a set of actions, processes and facts that institutions might use to demonstrate that they meet the guidelines. The principles/guidelines are perfectly reasonable/sensible, and the suggested evidence is exhaustive. For example, as evidence of principle #3, an institution might need to demonstrate that “the institution’s faculty have a designated role in the design and implementation of its online learning offerings.” Also, an institution might need to demonstrate that it “…ensures the rigor of the offerings and the quality of the instruction.”  Finally, in support of principal #4, we see language similar to what’s in the federal definition of distance education. That is, the C-RAC guidelines suggest that institutions might want to ensure that “[c]ourse design and delivery supports student-student and faculty-student interaction.”

Thus, if an institution wants to stay in good standing with NC-SARA, it must be in compliance with the C-RAC guidelines which are perfectly reasonable, but comprehensive standards to ensure quality in online offerings.

Regional Accreditation

Higher education accreditation agencies each have their own set of expectations around online learning. My institution is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which has Guidelines for Addressing Distance and Correspondence Education. These guidelines contain a set of expectations and a list of questions that an evaluator might ask of an institution as part of the accreditation process. Among those expectations is the following:

Comparability of distance and correspondence education programs to campus-based programs and courses is ensured by the evaluation of educational effectiveness, including assessments of student learning outcomes, student retention, and student satisfaction.

This notion of comparability is very much a part of the complaint filed by the GWU students. From the IHE article:

“In sum, plaintiffs were deceived into spending tens of thousands on tuition alone for a program that functionally required them to teach themselves the material,” the complaint reads. “They paid more than their peers who completed the same degree in a classroom, and yet received far less.”

These federal regulations, state reciprocity agreement guidelines, and expectations of accrediting agencies provide a comprehensive web of standards/guidelines/principles/expectations around online learning. In other words, lest anyone think that institutions of higher education can quickly, easily and negligently provide online courses and/or programs, the rules of engagement around online learning in are really comprehensive.

So, whether or not we see more complaints and/or lawsuits like the one filed by the GWU students, institutions of higher education WILL be held accountable for the quality of their online offerings.

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

April 8th, 2016 by Jon Becker

Here’s a dilemma that I’m certain is not unique to my institution, but that raises complex questions for me:

VCU ALTLab’s very own Lisa Phipps is teaching a (open, online) course this summer about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). She’s uniquely qualified to teach this course as a pharmacist with about 17 doctoral degrees. She’s taught versions of this course to various types of graduate students, and we thought it’d be a great course for undergraduates, especially if we dressed it in a connected learning motif. Lisa taught the course last summer to much good feedback from the students. So, the question is, how would undergraduates at VCU know that this course is being offered this summer?

Because the course is not yet officially a course in the bulletin, it is being offered as a “special topics course.” Its course code is UNIV291, and it’s “official” title is “Complementary & Alt Medicine.” Banner limits the number of characters for a course title. I forget the exact number, but it’s not much. In fact, IIRC, we may have maxed out with that title. It has a UNIV designation because, for now, it’s being offered through University College which is probably the best “home” for a course that’s interdisciplinary.

So, again, the question is, how undergraduates at VCU would know that this course is being offered. As best I understand it, students pick courses based mostly around what they need, what they’re advised to take, and/or what fits in their schedule. They find out what’s available through Banner. Here’s what Banner looks like from the start:


Inspiring, right? The directions on the screen say, “Use the selection options to search the class schedule. You may choose any combination of fields to narrow your search, but you must select at least one Subject. Select Class Search when your selection is complete.1 The first problem here is that a student must select a subject. Not an idea or a keyword, but a subject. So, if a student is interested in let’s say, “health” or “medicine”, there is no mechanism for the student to see if there are any courses related to health or medicine. Furthermore, in the case of Lisa’s class, if the student doesn’t first select “University College,” she will never find that course. And, why would a student select “University College” (which isn’t a major; it’s an important unit that houses our first-year seminar and a sophomore-level research writing course that all students take)?

Let’s go a little further into this Banner-based course selection process… Imagine a student is going home for the summer, but wants to be able to take classes and online learning makes that possible. Lisa’s class is online this summer. So, how would a student find out which online courses are available? Well, they’d have to know to start by clicking on “Advanced Search.” Once in “Advanced Search,” the student would have to look towards the bottom and know that “Course taught online” is an “attribute type” (see where the cursor is in the image below). So, what if the student selects the “Course taught online” attribute type and then hits “Section search” to see all of the online courses? Nope. Error. The student must also select a subject… Sigh.




We’ve tried to address this problem by developing our own “storefront” where current and prospective students can learn about all of our online offerings. On the online courses page, students can filter by a few variables and can also do a keyword search. But, do students know about our storefront? Unlikely. We’ve posted digital signage “advertising” throughout the Student Commons. But, does anyone actually pay attention to those monitors? Who knows.

Most recently, I sent an email to the head of advising in hopes that she’ll send the email to all of the advisors at the university in the hopes that they’ll get the information to the students… Yeah, that’s not terribly hopeful or efficient. There has to be a better way…

I mean, shouldn’t there be a way that allows for the possibility that a student might serendipitously learn about Lisa’s course? What if shopping for courses were more like shopping on What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:

  • Sophisticated, faceted search capabilities (keyword searching is the low-hanging fruit)
  • A detailed description of the course
  • Amazon-like reviews from other students
  • A course trailer for the course (here’s the course trailer for Lisa’s course)
  • A listing of “If you liked this course, you might also like…” (and/or, “Students who enrolled in this course also enrolled in…”)
  • Work products from students who’ve taken the course, syndicated in

I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities…

I also know that at the University of Virginia, a physics professor has gone rogue and created an unofficial course search system known widely as “Lou’s List.” That system has some nice features, but, well, you look and judge for yourself.

This all gets back to my last ranty blog post. I’m not willing to concede that all students view the course selection process as purely functional/operational. I certainly don’t want them to think of the process as “which checkboxes can I check off next semester.” The idealist educator in me has to believe that we can create a system that engineers serendipity2, that inspires and causes students to wonder. If we had a system that allowed a curious student to more easily scratch an itch about, oh, say, “complementary and alternative medicine,” we might help some students see higher education as a time of inquiry and wonder and not just a time of checking off boxes on the way to a credential.

  1. notice that the directions say “Class Search,” but the button actually says “Course Search.” Sigh. []
  2. as always, I have to give attribution to Tom Woodward for this phraseology []

Posted in Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

March 21st, 2016 by Jon Becker

In my (simple) mind, one overarching theme of VCU ALTLab‘s online learning faculty development initiative, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), is exploring the affordances of the modern Web for teaching and learning. In recent days, I have said on multiple occasions that I think this is an amazing time to be a learner and an educator. The ways in which web-based technologies allow us to augment “traditional” learning experiences are myriad, and I really believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface. As a VERY small sampling of what we’ve been working on here in ALT Lab, I recommend exploring our “examples” site that Tom Woodward has constructed. I dare you to take in the different examples on that site and to not start to imagine other amazing possibilities.

In the spirit of that theme, I’m particularly excited by one of this week’s activities. I’d gotten pretty jazzed by web annotation tools and had great success using with my undergraduate students last semester. So, I asked David Croteau, our lead coordinator of OLE, if we could incorporate web annotation into OLE, and he was agreeable. Furthermore, he wisely suggested it was an opportunity to have the OLE faculty participants read an article of interest as well; that is, the purpose of the assignment was to learn about how web annotation works, but we could “surreptitiously” “get” the participants to read something we think they should read. “Brilliant!”, I thought.

As I was pondering what article or web page we should have the OLE faculty participants annotate, I happened to see that Dr. Remi Holden was hosting a live Twitter chat (#profchat) about the use of web annotation (, in particular) in higher education. I wasn’t able to fully participate or even follow the chat, but I did peek in from time-to-time. Fortunately, Remi wrote a blog post about the Twitter chat which includes embeds of some of the tweets. It’s a really helpful post; a summary and reflection of an ephemeral event that now serves as a resource for those who couldn’t be a part of that event.

Now, it’s the case that all of our OLE faculty participants have created their own blogs, we encourage them to use Twitter (see #vcuole), and now we’re introducing them to web annotation using So, I decided that Remi’s blog post was the perfect piece for us to have the faculty participants annotate. In other words, while having faculty participants use blogs and Twitter, we were going to have them annotate a blog post about a Twitter chat about annotating the web. It’s all kinds of meta!

It’s also nice that before we released the assignment to our faculty participants, a few folks had already laid down some annotations on the post. So, our faculty participants can see how a conversation/discussion (the theme of OLE that week) can happen around a web-based artifact via annotations.  Only a few of the participants have done the assignment so far, but I’m really eager to see how the faculty participants engage with the activity.


Posted in ALTLab, Online Learning, Pedagogy, Social Media, Technology Tagged with: , , , ,

March 1st, 2016 by Jon Becker


I remember being asked recently what good online learning looks like. That wasn’t the exact question, but it was something to that effect. I also remember not being satisfied with my answer. To be fair to myself, it’s a nearly impossible question to answer. For one thing, online learning is not monolithic despite what many people think and what the question assumes.

In one of my many ruminative moments subsequent to being asked that question, I sent out the tweet above. I think the metaphor works and might be useful in helping folks realize that online learning contains multitudes. What constitutes a good meal depends. It depends on lots of things including who the meal is for, what time of day the meal will be served, what resources are available for preparing the meal, etc. Similarly, what constitutes a good online course or program depends on lots of things, including who the students are, what the goals of the course are, and, of course, what resources are available to the faculty and students.

To that last point, I just read a blog post by one of the faculty participants in our Online Learning Experience (OLE). In the post, the faculty member very fairly raises the concern of overwhelming students with too many platforms. She is feeling overwhelmed herself by the number of platforms we have incorporated so far (WordPress, Twitter, Google Drive, and Diigo) into the faculty development program. The frustration for me is that we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg with respect to platforms and tools. I mean, there’s VoiceThread and Flipgrid and Glogster and on and on and on. This is one of those tensions I explored in an earlier blog post about the OLE.

That said, I’m totally sympathetic to our faculty participants concerns. The struggle is real.

But, I wonder if we can reframe the question to one of the degree of ease we’re supposed to offer our students. I truly believe that learning is messy and there’s real value in causing learners to feel some discomfort. Not too much, obviously, but a little cognitive load is OK. The LMS is easy and safe for everyone involved, but is it the best environment for learning? One could reasonably conclude that it is the best; perhaps that it’s most cost-effective when considering all of the costs of platform-switching.

Returning to the meal analogy, it’s almost as if the option is to prepare the meal to be eaten in a nice cozy kitchen or to prepare the meal to be eaten in a beautiful, wide open field with a gorgeous view. The latter option *feels* better to me, but it is most certainly more difficult to pull off for both the person(s) preparing the meal and those who will eat the meal. Out in the elements, things could get messy. And, there are times when I just want to sit down to eat a quick meal without having to think too much and/or prepare too much. There are many days when dinner time rolls around that I’m thankful that my refrigerator and cupboards are reasonably bare. This constrains the set of possible answers to the question of what to eat for dinner. When it comes to online learning, though, the refrigerator and cupboards are not so bare; it’s perfectly sensible to look over the vast ecology of tools and platforms and to get overwhelmed.

My hope, though, is that faculty members will come to see that vast ecology in the spirit of opportunities and possibilities. The modern Web and its many associated platforms and apps is a wonder to behold and holds amazing affordances for teaching and learning. In my mind, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an educator.


Posted in Online Learning, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

February 14th, 2016 by Jon Becker
"Rhythm's Hands" courtesy of Woody Hibbard on Flickr.

“Rhythm’s Hands” courtesy of Woody Hibbard on Flickr.

For our newest cohort of faculty participants, it’s now the end of the first week of the Online Learning Experience (OLE), our intensive online learning faculty development program. Week one was about getting folks situated and getting them equipped with the digital toolbelt they’ll need to participate in the course. Some got started early in the week or somewhere in the middle of the week. But, many (most?) have waited until this weekend to do what was expected of them. That’s perfectly fine for week one, since this week wasn’t necessarily designed for engagement among the learners.

Moving forward, though, things will change. The faculty participants will be expected to connect with each other in multiple ways, all in the name of connected learning and meaningful student engagement.

When I teach online, I think a lot about the rhythm and pace of the course. In a typical, traditional face-to-face course, there is something of a built-in, default rhythm and pace. When I taught graduate courses, for example, we met once a week for 3 hours at a time. Typically, the students would do their “homework” the day/night before the day of class and then come to class the next day “prepared.” So, their attention to the course was divided across 2 of the 7 days in a week. That was mostly fine.

But, what happens when there’s no face-to-face class meeting time? Many online courses, especially those that favor content delivery/mastery, are designed around weekly assignments with a due date at the end of the week. For those kinds of courses, the rhythm and pace ends up looking a lot like week one of OLE where most of the students do the work the day/night before they are due.

However, in courses designed with community, connections and engagement in mind, it is important for the professor to be clear about expectations around the rhythm and pace. Last semester, I taught a fully online undergraduate research writing course. I called the course and students WonderPeople1. We got off to a rocky start because I had to have emergency surgery right as the course was starting2. So, I sent the students the email I’ve reproduced below. I could have posted it to the course site as a blog post, but students weren’t quite grokking the flow and structure of the course, so I emailed them. This was my way of trying to be explicit and clear about the rhythm and pace of the course. There’s more than one way to do that, but I offer you the email as one example.

Hello again WonderPeople,
Since the beginning of our semester has been so shaky, I’d like to try to right the ship a bit so that we can move forward with all deliberate speed.

(Hopefully our journey ends better than that one)

As Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, one question I often get from faculty and students is “How much time should students expect to work in an online class?” It’s a hard question to answer, but the basic answer is “The same amount of time as any other class.” So, we can do some basic math here. In a face-to-face class, there are 3 hours of class time. Beyond that, as a general policy, students are expected to spend 2-3 hours per week per credit on work outside of class time. So, generally, you are expected to do 6-9 hours of work outside of class. In total then, for any given 3-credit course, the expectation is that you’ll be doing at least 9-12 hours of work per week for that class (in and out of class). That’s no different here.

When you are in a face-to-face class, 3 of those hours happen at a dedicated time. The rest is kind of up to you. For this class, though, you’ll need to strongly consider spreading out those 9-12 hours over the course of the week. That is, I fully expect you to check in to the learning experience regularly throughout the week. Maybe 1-2 hours per day; maybe 2-3 hours every other day? The schedule is setup that way anyway. That is, you’ll have assignments due roughly Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So, if you’re thinking that this is the kind of class that you can blow off until the weekend and then catch up over the weekend, you’ll have to disavow yourself of that notion.

Furthermore, please consider reading the expectations page on our clubhouse site again. I’m perfectly serious when I write that, in the end, your goal is to commit and to impress yourself in everything you do. Also, note this part of the first quote on that page: “All students are required to share ideas and skills with their classmates and to expand their own personal knowledge in ways beneficial to their classmates.” You won’t meet that expectation by not committing regularly to the learning experience over the course of any given week.

For some of you, your work is starting to become visible to me and your classmates (see image below). Some of you just need to properly categorize your blog posts so that they start feeding in to our clubhouse. Others of you are showing no signs of work. If you get too far behind, it’s going to be really hard to catch the ship moving forward.

There is much fun and learning ahead; I promise. We’ll get to know each other a little better. We’ll learn some cool new tech. tools. We’ll read some really interesting articles. Etc. But, to get there, I just needed to make sure the rules of the road (the sea, to continue my metaphor?) are clear.

I very much look forward to working with you all this semester.

’S’ TV Shows Quiz


  1. Because wonder! Research/inquiry should be driven by wonder, IMHO []
  2. Yes, I ended up teaching from my hospital bed. Online learning, FTW! []

Posted in Online Learning, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

February 9th, 2016 by Jon Becker
Image courtesy of Wendy on Flickr

Image courtesy of Wendy on Flickr

The latest and greatest cohort of our intensive online learning faculty development program, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), begins this week. We’ve got 32 faculty members from all corners of the university signed up and ready to dive into an 8-week open, online course on online learning.

I am writing this post knowing that it will be automagically aggregated into the conversation hub of the course site where all participant blogs will syndicate. Mostly, what I am writing is for our faculty participants to read. But, by posting it to my blog, I’m also writing more publicly for those who might benefit from reading it. Connected learning, FTW.

I wrote about OLE last summer when we had a couple of dozen faculty participants. Much of what I wrote there still stands1, but we make changes to the curriculum each semester. You might say the OLE program is in “perpetual beta.” That’s part of what I hope we model for faculty participants; a course is a living, breathing experience that needs regular attention to thrive.

This idea of modeling raises one of the many tensions we deal with as we devise the curriculum and design the course. I’ll share just a few of those tensions here, but I hope our participants trust that MUCH thought goes into this course. It’s a huge opportunity for us and we owe it to our incredibly busy faculty participants to get it as close to “right” as we can.

Modeling vs. Explicit instruction

We could design a course that is quite instructive of different approaches to online learning, different theoretical orientations, different tools, etc. And, in some ways, we do that. But, we favor a bit more of modeling here. For example, we could have created a course wherein faculty participants spend a great deal of time exploring, critiquing and reflecting on the theoretical foundations of connected learning (our preferred orientation). There’s plenty of material for such a course. However, instead, we chose to model what connected learning looks and feels like; the course is designed/dressed in a connected learning motif. On the course overview page, David Croteau does a nice job of succinctly summarizing how connected learning is different from more “traditional” modes of online learning. There, we’re offering some explicit “instruction” about the course’s theoretical orientation. And, there will be moments where we point to additional resources about connected learning. But, again, particularly since there’s too much to do given the limits of time necessarily built in to the course, we model connected learning more than we explicitly instruct about it. There are other ways in which we choose modeling over explicit instruction, especially with respect to technology tools.

Activities vs. Tools

There was a time when our faculty development was pretty tool-centric. “Let us teach you about some tools and you’ll decide if they work for you.” For a lot of reasons, we’ve moved away from a tools-centric approach. This is a real tension, though, as evaluations of the course range from “Woah! Way overwhelmed by the number of tools introduced…” to “I learned so many great new tools! Every time a new one was introduced I realized there are so many possibilities and that’s awesome; more please!” Our course, though, is organized more around categories/types of activities than it is tools. We know that some form of “class discussion” is something faculty members want for their classes, so we include a couple of ways for the faculty participants to be in discussion with each other. Also, videoconferencing is likely something that faculty participants might want as part of their courses, so we have a point in the course where they videoconference with a small group of fellow faculty participants. The tools of class discussions and videoconferencing are not taught explicitly, they are embedded into the experience.

Open/Connected vs. Closed

This is the big one. ALT Lab’s tagline is “connected learning for a networked world.” So, it would be hypocritical of us to offer this course in any way other than as a connected learning-style course. In that sense, then, it’s not a real tension. But, it is. We’re well aware that “learning out loud” is uncomfortable for many, and we do our best to accommodate that. We’re also well aware that our “students” (the faculty participants) are incredibly busy and it would be easier for them to take a “traditional” course housed in Blackboard. At the end of the day, though, we really want our faculty participants to experience what the modern Web affords for teaching and learning. That’s just not fully possible within Blackboard, we believe.

Additionally, and finally, for now, as we try to model what an online course could look like in an open, connected paradigm, I want to make it clear to our faculty participants that we fully believe that what faculty participants learn through OLE is, for lack of a better term, “backwards compatible.” That is, we believe we’ve designed the course in such a way that by the time it is completed, faculty participants will know enough to create a really good course that is either similarly open and connected or one that uses the affordances/constraints of Blackboard. “Backwards compatible” is probably not the best language because I don’t want to suggest that a more “traditional” course in Blackboard is necessarily “backwards” or somehow “less than’; it’s just not what we advocate for or model. But, our guarantee to you, the faculty participant, is that if you fully commit to the OLE experience, you’ll walk away confident enough to design a very good online course within whatever platforms and paradigm of teaching and learning you desire.



  1. though the leadership of OLE has switched over to Dr. David Croteau and we’re using the #vcuole hashtag []

Posted in ALTLab, Innovation, Online Learning, Open Tagged with: , , , ,